A group of Seattle organizations will launch a campaign Monday for city legislation banning landlords from automatically rejecting prospective tenants with criminal records.
For anyone in Seattle, finding an apartment amid rising rents and fierce competition for desirable digs can be time-consuming, frustrating and exhausting.
For people who’ve served hard time, it can be even more difficult. Many landlords use background checks and warnings on applications to screen out prospective tenants with criminal records.
“Many people can’t obtain housing because they have a criminal history,” said Merf Ehman, a staff attorney at Columbia Legal Services. “They end up living with friends, couch surfing, living with family members if they can, or homeless, living on the street.”
That’s why a group of Seattle organizations led by Columbia Legal Services will launch a campaign Monday pushing the city to enact new legislation banning landlords from automatically rejecting all prospective tenants with criminal records.
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The campaign is called FARE (Fair Access to Renting for Everyone), and council members Bruce Harrell and Lorena González are to speak at its Monday night kickoff forum. Councilmember Kshama Sawant plans to attend, Ehman said.
Mayor Ed Murray has expressed interest in reducing barriers to housing for people with criminal records. He made the idea one of 10 headline policies and programs in his housing-affordability action planthis year after it was recommended by an advisory committee. Councilmember Mike O’Brien and incoming Councilmember Lisa Herbold also likely will be supportive, Ehman said.
In a statement, Murray talked of wanting to improve access. “People who have exited the criminal-justice system and paid their debt to society have a right to fair access to housing,” he said. “We have eliminated this type of discrimination in employment in Seattle, and it’s time that we also prevent discrimination in housing.”
What FARE wants mirrors legislation Seattle passed in 2013 restricting how employers can use conviction and arrest records during the hiring process and after.
The ordinance, part of a national movement sometimes known as “Ban the Box,” bars categorical exclusions in job ads and requires employers to have a legitimate business reason to deny a job based on a conviction record, among other provisions.
“There were community concerns it would not be a good thing,” Ehman said. “But it’s turned out to be a very positive thing. The sky has not fallen. More people get jobs.”
Bill Hinkle, executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, said his group will oppose the FARE proposal.
“I don’t think there’s any real support for it in the community,” he said. “We did some focus groups before. Everybody in Seattle really likes to give people a second chance at employment. But when it comes to who’s living next door, people want to know they’re safe.”
Hinkle said criminal-record criteria build trust between tenants and landlords. He said the rental association wants to help people with records get housing, but not FARE’s way.
The campaign has released a report to bolster its argument. One in four Americans has a criminal record and young men of color are overrepresented, the report says.
It mentions a recent fair-housing test: Black and Latino testers posing as prospective tenants were told about background checks more frequently than white testers.
Ehman said not being able to secure decent housing makes it more difficult for people to successfully re-enter society after serving time.
The children of people with criminal records suffer when their parents struggle to find housing, she added. One in 14 children has had a parent behind bars, the report says.
The legislation FARE wants could require landlords to show a connection between a tenant being denied and his or her particular crime, Ehman said. The city should recognize that people grow and change over time, she added.
“There has to be a time frame after which it shouldn’t matter to the people of Seattle that you have a criminal history,” Ehman said.